Talent management has no business in HR

To see the relative importance of talent management strategy to most current executives, let’s play a quick game. Imagine there’s an issue with a product. Like, I don’t know — maybe it’s defective in some way. In general, how quickly will this issue be resolved? How fast will an all-hands meeting be called? I’d say less than one week. (Of course, if the defect is making the company revenue and no one is paying attention, it may go on for years. See the auto industry for examples.) Now imagine some bad customer feedback on surveys. How quickly would that be addressed? Again, I’d guess within the month, if not sooner. “We’ve got a new customer retention strategy, boss! And it’s the bees’ knees!”

OK. Now about how about a people issue? Like a talent management strategy deal? Let’s say there’s a terrible boss creating turnover left and right. Or there’s one department that doesn’t seem to be hiring and performing properly. How long will it take to resolve this? In some cases, people make their entire careers on being assholes and continually getting promoted.

The bottom line is that most people who run companies — “the senior decision-makers,” if you will — view their company’s priorities as:

  • Products/services
  • Processes
  • People

… in that order.

One of the major reasons for this, besides the unabashed pursuit of wealth that characterizes many white males, is that we house talent management strategy within HR. That’s a problem. Let’s explain why.

Talent management strategy: The issues with HR

They are plentiful. Here’s a primer.

The biggest issue, though, is this. Most executives came up in a world where HR was associated with three things:

  • The secretarial pool Version 2 (i.e. attractive young girls)
  • Compliance projects
  • Cover-your-ass work

HR has been chasing the “seat at the table” for about 30+ years. It still hasn’t acquired it. No Type-A target-pounder running a company wants some HR flack at the big mahogany when the money decisions are being made. This is, unfortunately, fact at most places.

Now, now, now — you can bellow at me “But HR is changing! Data!” That’s somewhat true. People Analytics is out there as a concept — but it’s a long way off. There are many human biases to navigate through. In 2014, the average age of a CEO was 54. Let’s say that’s around 56 now. That guy (probably a guy) has another 15 years of work, if not more. (Remember: oftentimes men are terrified of retiring.) There might be some degrees of change in that span, and that guy might realize the importance of people more, but a wholesale shift in talent management strategy? Probably not. Change management also terrifies people. (And, ironically, it’s often the domain of HR as well.)

So ultimately, this is the first problem. Even if you worship your products and care nothing about your people, well, your people still have to do work on those products. You need a few good people here and there. That’s talent management strategy. But you’re housing that within a department you don’t care about. Hmmm.

But doesn’t HR have the functional expertise around talent management strategy?

In a few cases? Sure. Legal and compliance and paperwork and stuff. I’ll buy that. But in terms of hiring? No. Mostly what HR does is have generic interviews with people around subjective topics. It’s a steaming pile of mush and we use that to “win the war on talent.” It’s laughable. Also massively automated for a department whose first word is “human,” but let’s gloss that over for right now.

In an interviewing/advancing stages context, the skills you need are:

  • Having conversations
  • Taking notes
  • Gathering information
  • Inferring context

Those are basic human skills. The hiring manager can’t do that? Of course he can’t. He can’t be bothered to do that! And that’s the next problem.

Talent management strategy has become all about cover your ass

From a recent Harvard Business Review article on why you can’t let talent management strategy reside in HR anymore:

The second problem is that the rise of a central function makes it too easy for managers to forgo their personal accountability for acquiring and developing the right talent for their business. In all too many companies, how managers handle talent has no impact on their personal rating or compensation. All they need to do is fill out review forms, go to meetings, and assume that HR will make sure that the people issues are addressed. And then, if things don’t work out, they blame HR — despite the fact that they’re in a much better position to assess and develop their own people.

“Forgo their personal accountability.”

There it is. The way we approach talent management strategy is a complete cover your ass move. It’s designed around this logic:

  • Hiring managers are too busy!
  • They make the real money, baby!
  • The trains run because of them!
  • HR can handle the talent management strategy!
  • They have the functional expertise!

Riddle me this. At my last job, the HR lady I worked with through the hiring process — so, a person that would theoretically know what I did — called me up one day. She asked me to design a flyer for a Christmas party. I am not a designer. I have no visual sensibility of note at all. She goes, “Oh, I thought you were.” Hangs up. I had probably had six interviews with her maybe six months prior. And these are the people we want running point on talent management strategy?

So who should handle talent management strategy?

Here’s what I’d recommend:

Job Descriptions: A mix of the direct hiring manager and a rep from the marketing department to “punch it up” or make it more interesting. Requirement: job descriptions should talk about where the role can evolve to in five years.

Hiring Process: Hiring manager who claims he/she needs the role + members of his/her team. Since half the team is probably doing digital paper-pushing anyway, how about giving them some real authority to screen resumes for their future colleague?

Offer Stages: Hiring manager + someone from finance and accounting.

Onboarding: Hiring manager + his/her team. Revolve the whole deal around stories. Bring the execs in to speak to new hires about the culture and ultimate goal (aside from printing money, of course).

90-day check-ins: Hiring manager. This needs to be mandatory.

Performance review process: Hiring manager handles and stores data on his/her people, including their career arcs and recognition wants.

Promotions: Mixed-department committee where hiring managers make a “pitch” for employees; executives have final say. (I hate myself for typing that as execs barely know any middle manager’s name, but I have to be realistic here.)

You can read the above and say “You heaped all the talent management strategy stuff on front-line managers! They’re drowning as it is!” No they’re not. 21.4M of them in the U.S. alone — 17 percent of the workforce — don’t add value every single day, and that’s backed by research.

If you want the headcount, you handle the talent management strategy. Ain’t too hard a concept.

But why do we need a change in talent management strategy? We’re still making money, right?

For sure. And that’s part of the issue. “We’re still making money” has justified literally millions of terrible decisions in all walks of life over the years.

From that same HBR article linked above:

Unfortunately, the investment in centralized talent management over the past decade has had mixed results. According to a2013 CEB study, “only one in four HR organizations have effectively integrated their talent management practices…with the company’s strategic objectives.” Similarly, a 2012 EY survey of almost 600 global business executives found that talent management functions often measure the easy things (such as employee retention) while overlooking other factors that are important for organizational success (such as whether the right people, with the right skills, are in the right jobs).

Look, you know what “disruption” really is? It happens when your decision-making is slow and shoddy, and that happens when you have the wrong people in the wrong spots (and too much process). Your company’s f’ed if you’re keeping talent management strategy within the walls of HR. That’s a simple cover-your-ass, my-people-are-so-busy-oh-God-oh-God move.

People are important. Talent management strategy is important. So house it with the people who need to be accountable for it, not some HR flacks automating their processes up to their nose.

Anything else on talent management strategy?

My name’s Ted Bauer. Why are we so bad at work? How can we get better? What does the research say? That’s the kind of stuff I try to write about.